The percentage of mortgage holders who were behind on their payments dropped to the lowest level in two years during the fourth quarter of 2010, the Mortgage Bankers Association said in a report today.

At 8.22 percent, the seasonally adjusted delinquency rate was down from 9.13 percent during the third quarter and 9.47 percent from a year ago.

The percentage of mortgages in foreclosure climbed from 4.39 percent during the third quarter to 4.63 percent during the last three months of the year, matching an all-time high.

Fewer loans are entering the foreclosure pipeline: the percentage of loans only one payment past due — 3.25 percent — was at the lowest level since 2007, and the foreclosure start rate fell from 1.34 percent during the third quarter to 1.27 percent.

The percentage of loans three payments or more past due was down from an all-time high of 5.02 percent at the end of the first quarter of 2010 to 3.63 percent at the end of the fourth quarter of 2010 — a drop of almost 28 percent over the course of the year. All but two states saw a drop in the 90-plus-day delinquency rate, and the increases in those states were "negligible."

"While delinquency and foreclosure rates are still well above historical norms, we have clearly turned the corner" in the foreclosure crisis, MBA Chief Economist Jay Brinkmann said in a statement.

While unemployment remains high, the economy added more than 1.2 million private-sector jobs during 2010 and first-time unemployment claims fell during the second half of the year, Brinkmann said. Absent a significant economic reversal, he said, "the delinquency picture should continue to improve during 2011."

The MBA National Delinquency survey covers 43.6 million loans — about 88 percent of all outstanding first-lien mortgages. If the survey’s results are extrapolated, about 4.1 million homeowners were 30, 60 or 90 days or more behind on their mortgage payments during the fourth quarter, and another 2.3 million were in the foreclosure process.

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